Turning the Tables: Winning the Public Relations War

From the perspective of the Catholic Church, the culture war can look more like a culture siege—a one-sided contest pitting the attacking villains against a peace-loving Church. Or worse, sometimes it feels like the Church is hiding in a stained-glass bunker, dividing into factions and arguing about who is more orthodox while the attackers are breaching the outer wall.

It need not be so.

There’s no reason the Church can’t conduct forays out into the world and drive our enemies—culturally speaking—into retreat. But to do so, we have to learn how to go on the offensive.

From my desk at the National Catholic Register, I get to observe much of the current dynamic in the Church—in both the news we cover and in the letters we receive. The Church has plenty of apostolic life in it, but it needs a lot more. Many of the letters we get prove George Sim Johnston’s observation in “After the Council: Living Vatican II” (Crisis, July/August 2004): “Most laity still have the odd notion that we must wait for a signal from the bishop or local pastor to do anything. The council taught that if you have the Faith, you spread it.”

Rather than waste valuable time in our self-constructed bunker, we should be busy attacking—spreading the truth in the vast world outside. But this will require a new attitude and a new approach. Pope John Paul II has known this for some time. At the Denver World Youth Day in 1993 he told us, “This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. It is the time to preach it from the rooftops. Do not be afraid to break out of comfortable and routine modes of living, in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern metropolis.”

To do this, we have to get off of defense. We need to learn how to be convincing in the modern metropolis. And we need to preach without sounding preachy from whatever rooftops we can climb onto. Catholics are well behind the world in understanding how to argue in the 21st century. It’s high time we become wise as serpents and innocent as doves, rather than the other way around.

To that end, here are four rules of contemporary rhetoric that just happen to have a 2,000-year-old resonance for Christians.

Use them.

Rule No. 1: It’s not just about your argument. It’s about you and your argument.

As John Henry Cardinal Newman said, “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination…. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us.”

He goes on to argue, in A Grammar of Assent, that syllogisms can’t command belief in God. Only a real experience of God can do that. Similarly, our arguments won’t persuade anyone to our position. The plain reality is that others will only agree with us if they first trust us. And they’ll only trust us if we show that intangible quality of trustworthiness that Christians know is love.

You can’t fake love; if you try, it backfires. You actually need to care about your opponent. This happens to be a precept of both Christianity and public relations. And when you’re arguing with someone, the first way to show them love is to show them respect. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. To respect a person, you have to be open-minded and realize that he may actually have something important to say.

When I was first looking for work in Washington, D.C., a wise man—Pat Fagan, who was then at the Department of Health and Human Services—told me, “If you’re conservative, you should always read the Washington Post with an open mind and the Washington Times with a critical eye.” Good advice. G. K. Chesterton observed that a chief component of St. Thomas Aquinas’s genius was that he made his opponents’ arguments sound better than his opponents did.

Go therefore and do likewise.

Accurately assess your opponent’s position, and he’ll be more likely to listen to yours. And apart from gaining his good will, getting his argument right is necessary from a practical point of view. How, after all, can you move your opponent away from his position if you’re addressing a position he doesn’t actually hold?

One other important way to respect your opponent: Admit when you’re wrong. The human tendency is to dig in and get defensive (see Dan Rather). But this results in not only losing the argument but losing your credibility as well. Nobody listens to a person who is stubborn in his error. If you want others to admit when you’re right, you have to admit when you’re wrong.

Rule No. 2: Speak their language.

Once you’ve gained the right to be listened to, you face your next challenge: saying something that will be understood. Catholics speak a language filled with moral concepts and references to Church authority and Christian preconceptions—a language our neighbors don’t understand. And they speak a language of relativistic pragmatism, good-natured individualism, and amorality that we don’t understand.

How to bridge the gap? We can (and often do) demand that they submit to our superior moral language—but we won’t (and don’t) get very far. If we want to persuade them, we need to speak in a language they already understand. That would be their language.

This rule comes straight from the top—it is, in fact, the subject of a papal encyclical.

Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals have hefty, intellectual titles that point to the great issues of our day, such as The Gospel of Life, Faith and Reason, and The Splendor of Truth. But he also wrote one called The Apostles to the Slavs, which is a key to the John Pauline approach—and a valuable lesson for Catholics.

It tells the story of Cyril and Methodius, two talented brothers who retired early to “one of the monasteries at the foot of Mount Olympus.” Their personal histories—and the history of Europe—changed when an emperor sent them to the Slavic people who needed “a bishop and teacher…able to explain to them the true Christian faith in their own language.”

The encyclical praises the two for not only learning the language of the Slavs but learning it better than the Slavs. They created an alphabet so that they could translate Scripture into their new tongue.

The pope lauds their “effort to gain a good grasp of the interior world of those to whom they intended to proclaim the word of God in images and concepts that would sound familiar to them.”

Their story has clear application to our times: Two intelligent Catholics retreated to Mount Olympus to spend their time enjoying their faith with like-minded Catholics. But they were sent away from their “comfortable and routine modes of living in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known.” They translated the gospel into the primitive language of a closed and hostile world. And they conquered Eastern Europe.

Can we leave our own Mount Olympus and win over the people of our time? Only if we learn to speak in the language of our opponents.

Take homosexual marriage as an example. Public opinion says, “Homosexuals are nice people. Why deny them what we have?” The answer, “Homosexual activity is contrary to Scripture,” is true, but it’s in a language that won’t be heard. “Homosexual activity is intrinsically evil” is better but still won’t make sense.

A more winning approach is to find the current of truth in the opponent’s argument. No matter how destructive it has become, every wave of public opinion has some basis in truth. For instance, it is true that homosexuals shouldn’t be unfairly denied happiness. Even the Catechism says so.

And so we can agree with public opinion on this point. Homosexuals’ happiness is important. But how can homosexuals be most happy? Cite the statistics that show that homosexuality is often caused by childhood abuse and leads disproportionately to depression, despair, and—at alarming rates—suicide. Then ratchet the challenge up a notch: “Homosexuals are nice people. Why deny the realities that harm them and doom them to a life of despair? Let’s help them find real happiness by helping them out of the lifestyle.”

The pro-life movement has done this to great effect. Groups like Silent No More realized that the public was too distracted by the woman’s problems to look at the life question. So they agreed: Women are important, too. Then they pointed out that abortion deeply wounds women.

Yes, you risk making the argument—at least initially—too utilitarian. But you have a better chance of proceeding with the discussion if you begin there.

Rule No. 3: It’s about who, not what.

People love people and hate abstract concepts. It’s biological. Show a baby a picture of a person, and the baby will smile. Show the baby a geometric shape, and the baby’s attention will wander. It’s the same with arguments. Whoever makes the best case about real people wins, whether he should or not.

Politically savvy proponents of homosexual marriage know this. Many of us complained about media bias when we saw homosexual weddings on television (along with homosexual sob stories, homosexuals celebrating their new “rights,” etc.). But it wasn’t that simple.

The homosexual activists were faced with a public that was largely against them. So they learned the language of the culture, did their homework, mobilized their people, made phone calls, and provided compelling personal examples to make their case. They didn’t argue about the meaning of marriage or its proper ends; they argued that “we’re people with feelings, too.”

And they didn’t talk to the press about the consequences of redefining marriage. They talked about Hillary and Julie, David and Robert.

“Hillary Goodridge, 46, of Boston, had to say she was the sister of her partner, Julie Goodridge, 45, to see Julie when she was rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit after giving birth to their daughter, Annie,” said one story. “David Wilson, 58, was not able to say he was the brother of his partner, Robert Compton, 53, because Mr. Wilson is black and Mr. Compton, who has been hospitalized five times in the last five years, is white.”

You know how these articles go. Two nice gay people—N and M—feel injured in a specific, sad way by restrictive marriage laws. Heroic legislator X says, “These are fine people. Why deny them the same happiness of marriage that the rest of us have?” The story is “balanced” because grumpy conservative Y is quoted high up in the story saying, “Sodomy is depraved.”

Imagine how different it might be if the conservative side had instead said, “My friend Alicia thought the homosexual lifestyle would make her happy. But she suffered from lesbian battery—violent behavior that researchers of homosexuality say is common in the homosexual community. Now Alicia has left the lifestyle and is rebuilding her life.”

Or better yet, imagine that an organization that mobilizes former and chaste homosexuals had been bugging the newspaper for months, providing a convenient phone number for the reporter. The journalist finally calls it and gets Alicia on the phone, who says: “I feel lied to by the gay culture. No one told me about homosexual despair. Some of my best friends committed suicide. I’m glad I left all that,” she says. “Please, sir, print my story. People need to hear this.”

That would have given the readers something to think about. Only a person who speaks the language of the audience and has a story can win an argument in our culture.

Rule No. 4: Build a positive case.

The reality, in the minds of most Americans, is that the Catholic Church is neither an enemy nor a savior. Indeed, it isn’t a force to be dealt with at all. The Church is simply irrelevant. There are many reasons for this, and you can blame bishops, cardinals, and clergy in great detail if you like. But you can also blame lay people for receding into a defensive posture, speaking only in “thou shalt nots” or not speaking at all.

We never gain when we merely oppose. We only gain when we build a positive case for what we have to offer. It has always been this way.

When Christ caused a stir during his public ministry, it was because he was supremely relevant to the world—not to the religious world, but to the world at large. In the history of the Church, the Faith’s greatest gains have come when it has addressed directly the needs of the world. The missionaries who spread civilization, the monks who invented schools, the nuns who invented hospitals, the priests who preached hope to a broken world—these are the heroes that advanced the cause of Christ.

What about Catholics today? Are we primarily engaged in an effort to stop the villains, or are we instead bringing the Church’s transforming message to a world ravaged by destructive ideologies?

Recall the encyclicals I mentioned. The Gospel of Life addresses the despair and emptiness of the culture of death—with a proposal for building a culture of life. Faith and Reason comes to the rescue of a science that divorces itself from spiritual reality by making a positive case for a harmonious relationship between the two. The Splendor of Truth, likewise, is a compelling argument for how moral coherence brings human happiness.

These are gold mines of teachings that are meant to solve real problems. But the strong, positive case for how magisterial teaching can help the world is still the exception in Catholic ministry.

And not just in Catholic action—in Catholic conversation, as well. I say this with confidence because I’ve tried it several times: Gather a group of faithful Catholics together and tell them to discuss the ways Catholic doctrine can help the world. Within ten minutes, the conversation will turn into a debate over who hijacked Vatican II.

To be a force capable of changing the hearts and minds of others, we need to break out of the cycle of fault-finding. We need to stop the endless project of sounding the dimensions of the abyss. The world is not a force that threatens us so much as it is a place in desperate need of what we have to offer.

It’s no longer sufficient merely to be right in the face of opposition. We must now be right and persuasive. When the dignity of life and the sanctity of marriage are at stake, we can’t be content defending the Truth in a one-sided culture war. We have to win.


  • Tom Hoopes

    Tom Hoopes is writer-in-residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. Previously, he served as editor of the National Catholic Register and Faith & Family magazine. He is the author, most recently, of What Pope Francis Really Said (Servant, 2016).

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